Bible Translation Steams Ahead

Bible translation is not a new endeavor.  The Old Testament Hebrew Text was translated into Greek in its final form more than 150 years before Christ died, and before the Greek New Testament began to take shape.  The New Testament was translated into some Middle Eastern and North African languages like the Coptic text, the Syriac text and the Ethiopian text starting as early as the second century A.D.

The most famous of the early translations was the Latin Vulgate written by Jerome who was commissioned by Pope Damascus I in 382.  This translation became the standard for the Early and Medieval Church that was to last a millennium.  In fact, it was exactly 1,000 years later that John Wycliffe translated the Bible into vernacular English.  His based his translation though off of the Latin Vulgate.

The supremacy of the Latin Bible was slowly eroding at the end of the 15th century as the fledgling Protestant Reformation began to grow in Europe.  Finally, vernacular translations gained a solid foothold when Martin Luther produced a German translation of the New Testament in 1522, and William Tyndale translated large portions of the Bible into common English.  Both men bypassed the Latin Vulgate and based their translations directly off of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament.  In 1611, King James I commissioned the “official” English Bible, or the King James Version, which is still in use today.

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It has been 2,000 years since Jesus lived, and 400 years now since the King James Bible was translated.  I’m sure there are other great men who contributed in some way in making the Bible available to the average person during those 1,600 years.  And there was some progress made in the next 200 years.  But in many ways, Bible translation did not take any huge leap forward until a 32 year-old man named William Carey stepped foot as a missionary from England on the shores of India.

Carey spent most of the next 40 years in India, and not only did he learn the local Indian language of Bengali, but also the prestigious language of Sanskrit and a number of other languages.  From the beginning of his pastoral ministry there in India, Carey saw the value of translating Scriptures into the vernacular languages of the people.  He truly was a giant among those pioneering missionaries of the early 1800’s.  Consider this quote about his life:

“Despite personal and domestic handicaps of health, he was able, in addition to his usual pastoral and preaching duties, to translate the Scriptures in whole or in part into 37 different languages.  Alone he produced a complete Bible in Sanskrit, Bengali, and Marathi.  In addition to his work as a church planter, he foundedSeramporeCollegefor the training of an indigenous Indian ministry.  He founded the botanical gardens nearCalcutta, which evoked the praise of allAsia.

Carey also wrote Bengali colloquies, which authorities have acknowledged as constituting the basis for modern Bengali prose.  He distinguished himself both as a scholar and as a reformer.  He became professor of Sanskrit and Bengali and played a significant leadership role in the abolition of Suttee, the practice of burning alive Hindu widows upon the pyres of their husbands.”

 (pp 22-24 of Classics of Christian Missions by DuBose)

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All of what I have written so far may be interesting history for us.  And we may feel like these great moments of history in the story of Bible translation are long gone and done.  But that is not true!  We live in truly historic days today.  With the advance of technology and the increase in the information flow, plus some hard on-the-ground field work, we have been able to get a fairly accurate picture of where we stand today in regards to who has and who has not received God’s Word in their own language.

When I ask people the question, “How many languages do you think there are in the world today?” often I get the response of a few hundred to maybe as much as one thousand.  Believe it or not, there are almost 7,000 languages still spoken in the world right now.  That’s a huge number.  Then I would ask people if they had any guesses as to how many of those languages have any Scripture at all in their language.  And again, people are stunned to hear the statistics.

Here is the latest information that we have:

  • Complete Bible  =  457 languages
  • Complete New Testaments  = 1211 languages
  • Portions of the Bible  = 897 languages

That means that 2,565 languages have at least a piece of the Bible in their language.  Of the remaining 4,295 language of the known 6,860 existing languages, there are almost half of these that have some work begun in them.  But according to the 2010 world language statistics, it has been estimated that “340 million people speaking 2078 languages may have a need for Bible translation to begin.”

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Now that is definitely a huge number and still a huge challenge.  But do you know why we live in such a historic time?  The major Bible translation agencies in the world (Wycliffe Bible Translators, Pioneer Bible Translators, Lutheran Bible Translators, New Tribes Mission, United Bible Societies, to name just a few), they have determined that we have within our grasp the potential resources of finances and personnel to get the job done within this or the next generation.

In 1999, Wycliffe Bible Translators adopted a strategy called “Vision 2025“, indicating that they would do all that they could do to see every language group in the world that needs a Bible translation project started to actually see them get started by the year 2025.  Pioneer Bible Translators has also just released its commitment to see our areas of language responsibilities begun by 2030, and Lord willing to have at least a New Testament available by 2050 if possible, but no later than 2060.

These are truly exciting days as we see the possibility of the Good News going out literally to “all the nations” within this next generation.  I am thrilled to be a part of this  grand plan of God.  And no doubt, I will have many more articles to come which expand on all of this.  So stay tuned.

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